The Rioja wine region is located in far-north central Spain, spreading throughout the Spanish provinces of La Rioja, Álava, and Navarra which lie south of the Cantabrian Mountains on the upper Ebro river. The region’s name is derived from a secondary river running through the area (el río Oja), but Rioja is segmented and greatly influenced climactically by the country's most important river, the Ebro. The Cantabrian Mountains shield the area from harsh winds and the Ebro River provides humidity. There are three Riojan subregions: Alta, Alavesa, and Baja. The region mainly has a mild Atlantic climate, although the lower-lying Baja subregion has a Mediterranean climate, which is warmer and drier than the rest of the region.
Rioja has had vineyards since before Roman times. In the mid 10th century, local vinicultural endeavors expanded dramatically, as large numbers of Europeans on religious pilgrimages passed through the area on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The road to Santiago from France runs the length of Rioja, and wine was in great demand by Christian pilgrims. In the mid 19th century, Rioja got its big break due to the extremely bad luck of French wine-makers. Severe phylloxera mite infestation and simultaneous, widespread odium fungal infection of grapes in France ruined most of the country's vineyards. Subsequently, vintners from Bordeaux brought their expertise--in particular their unique oak-barrel aging process--to Rioja. Several prestigious wineries were established between 1858 and 1870. Some of these original wineries still exist, most notably the region's first French style estate, Marqués de Riscal. Many more labels have been created over the years. Currently there are about 150 wineries and 123,000 acres of vineyards in Rioja.
Terroirs throughout the region are variable. Rioja Alta's alluvial soils are rich in clay, limestone, and iron and are very fertile due to the sediments deposited by the Ebro River and its tributaries. Rioja Alavesa in the Basque province has a distinctive, chalky soil with some red clay. Rioja Baja's terroir is heavily laden with limestone. Rioja's signature grape is the Tempranillo. Almost all red wines from Rioja are the result of blending of grape varieties. Tempranillo grapes are used primarily and Garnacha grapes secondarily, with much smaller percentages of Mazuelos and Gracianos added for flavor and aroma. The Tempranillo grape provides the main flavor and has excellent aging potential. Body and increased alcohol content come from the Garnacha. Oak adds much to the taste of Rioja wines, as does the aging process. Wineries of this region have been known to hold a wine 15 to 20 years and even longer before releasing it publicly. In 1983, the bodega Marqués de Murrieta released its Gran Reserva 1942, after 41 years of aging.
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Photo of Rioja courtesy of Vibrant Rioja.